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Going Schoolwide with Digital Portfolios

I will be speaking to school leaders at AcceleratED on February 21 in Portland, Oregon on the topic of digital portfolios. If you are an educator located in this area, consider registering for this conference. It’s definitely worth your time away from school. Below is an adapted excerpt from my new book on the topic, detailing steps leaders can take to implement better assessments for students.

Students are more than a score. They are unique individuals, each possessing different motivations and talents. To distill an understanding of their current status and future potential down only to a symbol, such as grades or levels, is at best a misrepresentation of their abilities and at worst educational negligence. We can do better.

One way to do better is to implement digital portfolio assessment in every classroom in a school. Digital portfolios can be defined as online collections of evidence of student work, carefully curated to document student learning for both growth and mastery. Tools used for this initiative include but are not limited to Edublogs, FreshGrade, Google Sites, Kidblog, Seesaw, and Weebly.

There is more than one pathway a school leader might take in implementing digital student portfolios at a schoolwide level. Every school has a different culture and climate. Having completed this type of change before, as well as being familiar with the literature and research on organizational change, I am confident that school leaders who follow these general steps will be more likely to experience success.

Start with assessments. “What gets measured is what gets done.” If this adage is accurate, then school leaders, including teacher leaders, have a lot more authority to drive assessment practices schoolwide than previously thought. Making changes include not only introducing digital portfolio assessment but also expanding the types of assessments being used as well as developing assessment literacy with faculty.

When we alter assessment practices schoolwide, we also change the conversation about how student success will be measured. Case in point: In the fall of my first year in my current school, the newly formed instructional leadership and I instituted fall and spring writing assessments. Although writing was not yet a priority for our school, one teacher asked, “Are we focused on writing as a building?” Starting with a change in assessment practices can be a subtle yet powerful call to action.

Assess your level of accessWithout available and robust technologies, both hardware and software, we risk running this digital initiative into the ground.

I experienced this first hand in my previous school. We had purchased several iPads for each classroom with the intention of using them for documenting student work online. Unfortunately, we ran into many challenges in this process: wireless access points were installed in inappropriate locations; the bandwidth was not strong enough to upload video from multiple devices at one time; purchasing one type of tool (tablets) did not recognize the developmental needs of the different age levels in our school. If we had not slowed down our technology integration process and rethought our approach, I don’t think the end result – schoolwide implementation of digital portfolios to improve student writing – would have been realized.

In my two books on digital portfolios, I provide a readiness tool for school leaders to complete in order to assess the level of access for this type of initiative. Click here to download this tool to use with your leadership team prior to or during implementation.

Start small. Instead of pushing every teacher to adopt digital student portfolios right away, consider allowing faculty who are ready for this initiative to run a pilot. This was one of the steps we initially took in my last school that proved to be successful. A 1st-grade teacher and our speech and language teacher tried FreshGrade with their students. They discovered an increase in collaboration, better parent engagement, and students feeling more involved in their work through self-assessment and goal setting.

Their enthusiasm carried over the following year when we decided to implement digital portfolios schoolwide. In fact, these two teachers plus other school leaders would sometimes lead the professional development sessions for the rest of the faculty. They became champions for this work, which accelerated the implementation process.

Attend to the culture. Any schoolwide improvement effort that truly impacts student learning involves a cultural change as well as a technical change (Muhammad, 2009). Culture is defined as “the school’s unwritten rules and traditions, norms, and expectations” (Deal and Peterson, 2019, pg. 6). Leaders have to facilitate change in how teachers engage in their practice. They need to attend to teachers’ beliefs about the importance of this type of work, understanding that beliefs drive practices and, subsequently, the acquisition of resources (Routman, 2014).

To start, school leaders have to communicate this change as a part of an existing initiative and not “one more thing”. Technology without the context of pedagogy can create the perception that this is separate work outside the purview of core instruction.

One way a school can connect digital portfolios with daily instruction is by guiding teacher teams or departments to develop a yearlong plan of instruction. The outcomes of this plan can be around whatever the school values as important for students to know, understand, and be able to do. In my last school, we had a strong focus on writing. Therefore, each teacher team mapped out their yearlong plan for writing genre instruction.


Figure_ Yearlong Plan for Instruction.png
A yearlong plan for genre writing instruction, K-5


At the end of each unit of study, teachers were expected to guide students to upload a piece of writing they were most proud of, accompanied by reflection and goal setting.

Also helpful for teachers is sharing long-term goals for this work. Leaders can honor the initial efforts of innovators by highlighting where they are at on a continuum of digital portfolio assessment, from simply posting work online to using digital tools to inform many areas of instruction. Wherever a teacher is at professionally is recognized, with the caveat that there is always room for growth on a pathway toward excellence.


Above all, culture has to be infused with constant celebration. Taking time to acknowledge teachers’ and students’ efforts at the beginning of staff meetings and professional development sessions fosters motivation for continuing this work. We have to enjoy the journey as well as the destination when upgrading our assessment practices with the help of digital tools. Learning at each level should be an exciting and rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Excerpt, What I'm Writing

Going Schoolwide with Digital Portfolios: Cudahy High School (Cudahy, WI)

img_0256-1This following post is an excerpt from my new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (ASCD, 2017). Each chapter ends with a learner profile. These profiles are transcripts of my interviews with educators leading the way with using digital portfolios in their schools. In this profile, two high school educators share their experience in having their students use Google Sites to curate their best work and present it to a community panel. Another learner profile was recently posted on FreshGrade’s blog. Purchase my book today to read all of the profiles, and to learn how you can start using digital portfolios in your classroom!

Josh Beck is a high school English teacher at Cudahy High School in Cudahy, Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee. Chris Haeger is the building principal. Josh and Chris share their journey in adopting are more authentic and continuous approach to student assessment with digital tools.

  • Why did you introduce digital portfolio assessment in your classroom?

Chris: Our focus was on developing a growth-minded assessment with kids, following the research available that supports this work. We wanted to move beyond just a grade – to give kids an opportunity to see their growth over time. The advent of the Common Core State Standards helped in providing us with direction.

Josh: As teachers, we knew the standards were coming. We wanted to authentically assess students’ understanding of those standards and to measure our impact as educators. We decided that portfolios were a way to do this. It’s great how students can go back and see how they grew from semester to semester. As teachers, we could see how we have influenced our students’ work in literacy.

  • In what ways, if any, were those who were affected by this program unique or unusual?

Chris: Twice a year, sophomores and seniors present their portfolios to a panel of adults. Business people, community leaders, college professors, military, and members of our state’s department of public instruction have all served on this board. This experience has tremendously positive. A student has to come in front of all these people and present what they have learned and done and tell us how their work has displayed their understanding. Putting themselves out there, wearing suits and dresses, is a great experience for them. Kids will come back and tell us how this experience is tangibly dependent on the academic expectations.

We wanted to move beyond just a grade – to give kids an opportunity to see their growth over time.

Josh: One student whose family was living in poverty did not come prepared to the panel. She had to explain to everyone why she did not do any work that semester. The next time, she was dressed up and had work to present that addressed all ten ELA standards. The portfolio process was what motivated her to move out of a fixed mindset due to her situation. Now, I just ask the kids, “What are you going to present at the panel?” These experiences also lead to real opportunities. At one presentation, a student was asked after presenting by a local employer if they wanted to apply.

  • What were the characteristics of the products and of the other educators who were working with you regarding digital portfolio assessment?

Josh: Other content areas and departments have joined us in this process. We put together a list of the standards in plain English, shared them with the other teachers, and asked, “What assignments that you assign are aligned with these expectations?” We have sat down with social studies teachers, government teachers, and talked about the work they do with kids and how they might connect with each other. For example, when students study the U.S. Constitution, and we read The Kite Runner, we compare the different constitutions between Afghanistan and the U.S., especially after 9/11 and how our country was involved. Conversations about how to include minorities and females in our own country’s constitution are more frequent and deep.

  • What resources were used to support the use of digital student portfolios?

Chris: We use Chromebooks to access many of these resources. High school students all have one of these devices. Also, it was critical that there was teacher willingness to move from binders on a shelf to something electronically-based. Mickey, our technology integration specialist, was able to help teachers to support this initiative and solve any glitches. He has been instrumental. Kids all now have a Google Site that maintains their portfolios.

Josh: After they graduate, students will come back and connect their personal email to keep those portfolios. One student who went to college used her high school template to develop another one for her English coursework. The panelists have also liked this digital component. The ability to quickly click on a link and show four years worth of work is very convenient.

  • What specific outcomes do you attribute to the use of digital student portfolios?

Chris: It has expanded kids’ understand of technology. We have shown them how to scan on their phones and use these devices beyond social media and texting. Even teaching kids how to create a website is important. We aren’t making any assumptions about kids’ “tech-savyness”. Kids who transfer into our district are amazed at how technology is used and how applicable basic tools are, such as the smartphones and the copy machines. We are using all tools to allow students to learn. Other apps such as voice recorders and video makers are incorporated into their Site.

Kids who transfer into our district are amazed at how technology is used and how applicable basic tools are, such as the smartphones and the copy machines. We are using all tools to allow students to learn.

  • In your opinion, what other factors contributed to the achievement of these outcomes?

Josh: Again, the willingness of the staff is impressive. We are trying to connect with kids on a personal level, be reflective and develop relationships. We talk about what they did well and what they want to work on next. We are constantly asking the kids for feedback and asking how our instruction helped them meet expectations. An added benefit has been how we have taught students to network and reach to others to include them in the panel and process.

Chris: Also, the willingness of community members to come in and listen to the kids’ describe their learner is nice. The kids see the mayor here, other important leaders, and they take what is really their final exam and it creates a different context. At least half of our kids show up in suits and ties. People are now calling us to serve on this panel and take an interest in the students’ learning. Another factor is panelist have told us it is easier to answer educational questions and have conversations with people about this topic in the community. The indirect influence of this process has brought in other leaders to school.

  • What problems did you encounter when developing or introducing digital student portfolios?

Chris: Students tell us that the first time through is a learning process regarding organization. Kids talk and discuss how different teachers have different expectations regarding the portfolios. Also, staff members needed some time to adjust. “How is the portfolio connected to standards? Learning targets?” Portfolios point out many more areas of school that need to be addressed.

Josh: It has been a slow process in the beginning because the seniors didn’t have a digital portfolio. So we had to transition. It was also a challenge to get everyone on the same page regarding academic expectations and how the standards are interpreted. What is acceptable and what is not, and defining what these standards are asking for, we as a faculty have to have a common understanding. Parents are involved in this process up to the presentation itself, preparing them for the event.

  • What else do you think a teacher or school should know before implementing digital student portfolios?

Josh: The presentation is a celebration of their work. They come to the end of the school year with excitement and pride, smiles on their faces. “When do you present? How did you go?” is a common question we hear in the hallways. Even students with significant needs are expected to present. The panelists can never tell which kids are in a special education program and which are not. One student who is autistic came up and delivered an amazing presentation, without any echoing or other issues that he normally displays. We were so glad to have given him the opportunity to do this on his own and be independent. Everyone talked about it afterward from the panel. Successes like this, kids coming in like any other kid, it is amazing.